When Charles Dickens’ published his “little Christmas book” for the first time 174 years ago, it was intended to help an author struggling to make ends meet. “A Christmas Carol,” as it was known, served that purpose. But it also was regarded at the time as an important political commentary on social injustice and poverty, one that helped reshape Britain’s system of poor laws and workhouses. It serves us well today as a reminder about priorities and the relative ranking of the things of true value.
During the second ghostly visit, for example, there’s a memorable moment when Scrooge asks what hides beneath the spirit’s robe. The ghost of Christmas Present draws back his garment to expose two children, wretched and abject.
“Spirit, are they yours?” Scrooge asks.
“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy …”
Among all the threats to mankind to single out for Scrooge, why did Dickens choose these? Why not sickness, greed, violence, isolation or moral decay?
Instead, he emphasized the danger of ignorance — and was pretty emphatic about it.
“But most of all beware this boy,” the Spirit says. “For on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”
Dickens even seemed to anticipate that future generations would argue this point — as we have done and will certainly do again in 2018 as we debate funding priorities following the approval of the GOP tax cut.
“Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand toward the city. “Slander those who tell it ye. Admit if for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.”
It’s a haunting reminder that the greatest gift we can offer anyone at this or any other time of year is not an appliance, car or jewlery. It’s an education.
In another scene, Dickens illustrates the lasting value of another gift, one found in the description of the after-work party hosted by Scrooge’s former employer, Fezziwig.
“In came all the young men and women employed in the business. In came the housemaid, with her cousin, the baker. In came the cook, with her brother’s particular friend, the milkman. In came the boy from over the way, who was suspected of not having board enough from his master … In they all came, one after another; some shyly, some boldly, some gracefully, some awkwardly, some pushing, some pulling; in they all came, anyhow and every how.”
It was Fezziwig’s benevolence and insistence on including all people, regardless of status or age, that gave the celebration its warmth.
“A small matter,” said the Ghost, “to make these silly folks so full of gratitude.”
“Small!” echoed Scrooge …
“Why! Is it not! He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?”
“It isn’t that,” said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self. … “The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”